Policing in the UK has come under intense scrutiny after it emerged that company Virgin Media funded police overtime in return for the Met to probe an expensive commercial fraud case.
As the police face budget cuts and a recruitment freeze, it is understood that 30 detectives were sponsored by Richard Branson’s firm, with the company agreeing to support an additional overtime cost incurred by the Metropolitan Police.
The payments were intended to enable police to investigate a fraud case that had been costing the cable company an estimated £144 million a year.
According to the contract between Virgin Media and the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA), “the MPA accepts from the donor the unconditional offer of cash donations of every 25% of any money returned to Virgin media under a compensation order following successful asset recovery work”.
The extra police work, which cost a total of £5,060, led to the successful prosecution of three men involved in an international set-top box scam that manufactured, imported and supplied set-top boxes from South Korea to UK dealers – allowing viewers to unlawfully access cable TV.
Such payments are legal under the Police Act 1996 – which states a police force may provide “special police services” to “any person” subject to payment. But the issue of private policing against regular and more important police work has been called into question by critics.
In fact, after the lawyers of one of the now-jailed defendants Munaf Ahmed Zinga argued that the private prosecution should not have gone ahead in the first place because the payments should have been considered illegal, Judge Inigon Bing instead ruled they were “above board”.
A spokesman from Virgin Media told Yahoo! News that there was no issue with the payments and that the terms were fully detailed and disclosed in court.
He added: “The payments are not as secret as the media are making out today. Corporations pay the police for services all of the time.”
However, some think very differently. Speaking with Yahoo! News this morning about the issue of private policing, London Assembly member and a member of the Police and Crime committee Jenny Jones strongly opposed the payments.
She said: “It’s outrageous. The police have always taken out private contracts for policing special events like football matches, concerts or celebrities. But when it’s a public order issue, it’s outrageous that they can use up police time to work on Virgin, regardless of whether it’s a priority or not.
“Instead of hiring detectives to gather evidence and building a case first, it is understood they hired out officers to do extra work in police overtime when there are more important things at stake like rape and child abuse cases to take care of.”
Civil liberties group Liberty similarly questioned the ethics of private policing and suggested that Virgin Media case seemed to “give wealthy victims of crime greater sway than poorer victims”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ quotes.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: “Times may be tough but that's no excuse for turning the police into hired guns for those wealthy enough to pursue crimes against them.
“Taking a percentage of a victim's remuneration is bad enough but even worse is the thought of those in greatest need of protection being turned away in favour of those who can afford to pay.”
The revelations come after the World Society of the Protection of Animals (WSPA) contributed a “significant amount of money” to directly fund the Met’s Wildlife Crime Unit. It is the first time policing in the UK has ever been funded by a charity.
The Green Party's Jenny Jones added: “The Wildlife Crime Unit has been going for 12 years. There were plans to cut it as it was not a policing priority like other elements of core policing. But, wildlife crime should be considered a core area of policing which the Met should be paying for.
“When it comes to funding, the charity money should always be seen as an extra investment in terms of increasing the unit's output and effectiveness.”
Sergeant Ian Knox, of the Wildlife Crime Unit, said: “The extra funding will pay for more staff so we can be more proactive in targeting criminals who seek to exploit animals for financial gain.”